Why do we enjoy unrealistic tropes in stories?

In general people tend to value believability in stories. We like the characters to behave like human beings normally behave – to respond realistically to the situations they’re put in, to act as though they have consistent desires and motivations, to display the appropriate emotions in the appropriate circumstances. If the characters and the situations aren’t believable, the fantasy breaks down.

(Note that I’m not talking about the fantasy and science fiction genres here. I think most people are willing to accept strange worlds as long as they maintain internal consistency and believability. For example, I’m perfectly willing to accept a story about space marines fighting cavemen if the characters are solid and recognizable, but I’ll balk at a story set in the “real world” where the characters don’t talk and act like human beings.)

However, there are certain unrealistic tropes that seem to violate the “keep it believable” rule. For example, sometimes in the real world things will happen abruptly and for no reason. But a story with random, arbitrary events feels broken somehow. If a big change is going to happen in a story, there’s usually some foreshadowing first. Similarly, events in the real world often don’t have a tidy beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes problems resolve themselves just by dumb luck. Or just linger on and on without ever coming to any sort of resolution.

So … if believability is an important element of storytelling, why are so many conventions of storytelling so removed from what real life is actually like?

I think partly because stories, in addition to being entertainment, are ways of making sense of life, shaping chaos into narratives that show cause and effect. The randomness of real life doesn’t work in that context - stories are about meaning, so things occurring for no reason don’t seem to fit the medium. IMO.

There’s a few different potential reasons, but I think the base one is simply idealization. We don’t want wholly realistic stories for the same reason we like looking at beautiful people rather than average or even ugly. We want to enjoy something clean, well-formed, and free of blemishes. When talking about stories, that applies not only to the quality of writing, but the economy of it; as the author has complete control over the story, nothing need happen in it that is irrelevant or extraneous. An author striving for realism could ensure that his characters leave the plot at appropriate times to go take a dump, but it’s purely irrelevant and also not something we wish to read about. I wanted to read a murder story; why is the detective going number two?

(Obviously, when the bathroom is relevant, then it can become interesting. Example: Pulp Fiction.)

Can you give some other examples of what you mean by “unrealistic tropes”? Your example seems to be more about story-telling itself than any trope.

As to why we value stories that have foreshadowing and resolution, it’s because while life doesn’t have these things consistently, we wish they would. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t spend so much time obsessing on why things happened the way they did, and on what motivates people to do things we can’t understand because we didn’t see them coming. We all want for problems to have foreshadowing so we can stop them before they start, and for them to have neat resolutions too so we can say “okay, I understand what happened and now I can move on.” A lot of storytelling is about wish fulfillment for both the author and their readers, so it’s not hard to see why this basic wish is satisfied by neatly told stories.

Believability does not equal realism. And realism is overrated when storytelling is concerned. Stories seek verisimilitude, not realism.

If you’re truly interested in a story, then it’s the story that’s important. A story makes sense out of life, and, tells the truth through lies. Worrying about whether it’s realistic is missing the point: realism is just a current fad in art and may see as quaint in 100 years as sentimentalism does today.

woodstockbirdybird hit it in one. Stories are about meaning. They are about connecting the dots and making sense of things. It is finding understanding. When we write stories, we are piecing together the understanding through the whole thing.

Stories where random things happen and then the problems are unresolved are not satisfying, because they don’t have that sense of meaning and closure. That violates what a story is.

We can get perfect realism out of life. And most of us are not satisfied with our life. Why would we want to get another copy?

It’s for the same reason cartoons do not look like photographs. By selectively paring down and distorting an image, you cut away the clutter and focus what is the bare essence.

I was thinking of stuff like huge coincidences, myself, though not sure if that’s what OP had in mind. Stuff like Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton being doubles and oops that turns out to be significant later on! Or Oliver Twist running into his own long lost grandfather.

I mean, people do mock things like deus ex machina and really big coincidences and call them contrivances. But I suppose the alternative would be bleak stories where people get guillotined or die in the poor house.

Not so fast! Coincidences, strange occurrences and series of acts without closure in any “realistic” sense are common in literature and not unheard of in theatre and film.

Auteurs and directors like Wong Kar-wai, Atom Egoyan, Tom Tykwer, Julio Medem and others seem to be fascinated by one question: Is life grounded in fate or coincidence?

Their films do not just deal with that question thematically, they also often incorporate it into its form.

The result can be hermetic and arty at times and sometimes easily approachable and entertaining, like Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Lola runs) or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Przypadek (Blind Chance).

And literature is filled with stories that don’t necessarily follow a linear and logical structure; magic realism is one of a couple of styles that incorporate strange happenings commonly and dadaism represents doubt in every sense and explicitly refuses narrative traditions, norms and a “proper meaning” in its works.

Sure, stories with a proper beginning, middle and closure usually have more market value but that’s not all there is, quite to the contrary.

Unrealistic tropes in fiction confirm prior beliefs, regardless of whether or not those beliefs are true in real life. For example, a sexually active “bad girl” in a horror movie will almost inevitably get killed, and not even for anything involving sexual activity but as some kind of karmic retribution. This confirms belief that “bad girls” come to a bad end, though in real life the bad girl would probably be more likely to escape an axe-wielding maniac than some goody two shoes.

The same goes for underdog stories. With the right will anything is possible, they say. In reality, underdogs almost always lose. Money, talent, and experience count for more than simply wanting it more.

Also, sports stories tend to make the rivals the bad guys, meaning the heroes deserve to win, though in reality there aren’t usually bad or good guys in sports, and anyway deserving to win doesn’t mean actually winning.

…because the purpose of art is to provide what life does not…

I have no idea where I heard <or more likely, read> that, but it’s stuck with me over the years.
And now it has a use!
Edit…Thank you Google!

Tom Robbins.
I am not surprised :slight_smile:

‘The function of the artist is to provide what life does not’

Close enough?

I can’t find or recall what book it was from, but I am guessing whichever one had the Airstream winged egg.
Damn, I need to go back to his books, haven’t read them in a long time!

wintertime, I don’t think you understand what I said. When writers and directors play with those forms, they are exploring the nature of meaning and understanding. For instance,

Fate itself is a question of meaning, of why things happen.

When directors play with the format of the movie, they do so to explore the theme, the meaning, they are trying to convey. It is, as I said, about meaning.

Linear and logical structure are not requirements, but they are common because they are basic and common ways of creating the meaning from the events that occur.

Stories are about trying to create understanding - even if that understanding is that conventional ideas about life and reality are wrong.

I think you blend different layers of communication and its meta-structure into one: communication itself, regardless of its form, is already meaningful, otherwise it’s not communication but noise. But even noise creates understanding, if only of the absence of meaning. That understanding, however, is not laid out in the noise but discovered or invented by the recipient.

Any art is beyond noise; you cannot create a narration, a film, a piece of music, a picture, any form of art without incorporating meaning and it cannot be received without prompting some kind of meaning and understanding within the observer (though not necessarily and never just the intended one).

The actual content, however, might very well mean to express the idea that there is no meaning. In that purpose it might fail (deliberately or not) a second time by either revealing meaning through or despite a lack of assumed meaninglessness or by inventing a new sense simply by being directed at continuously understanding-seeking recipients.

This is one of the well-known snares of the already mentioned dadaism and its inescapability has driven some of its most fervent proponents into silence.

If we were nasty, we could point out (as if they never had to hear that before) that silence is still more than noise … but we won’t do that, right?

Instead, lets take a look at form, function and content one at a time. Within every single one of them, artists are quite capable of conveying some idea of arbitrariness and/or senselessness – or initiate the discovery or invention of such an idea within the observer (even without meaning to).

So, while you might very well say, that the playwrights of Eugène Ionesco do transport meaning, cannot not do so, it doesn’t mean they are meant to express the idea that life, as we know it, is meaningful – or that any understanding beyond a shared illusion can be achieved or that they don’t leave an observer :confused:.

That, of course, cannot be done without a purposeful effort to create a certain understanding between the partners in communication here. But, like I said, that’s a result of the process of communication, not necessarily of its content.

I have no idea what you just said. And I tried.

I won’t dispute that. But a story is a particular kind of communication, separate from a melody or a visual stimulation or a definition. Whether it is a book, a play, a TV show, or even a story conveyed purely via a series of pictures, a story is a linking of things to emphasize a point.

A story can be as simple as telling what you did today, but the point of telling frames the content of the story. If your intent is to communicate why you feel a certain way (tired, bored, energetic, confused, in love, whatever), then the story will focus on the elements that enhance that message and omit or downplay the elements that do not help convey that message.

“I woke up, went to the restroom, crawled back in bed, flipped over, then went to get a drink of water and take a decongestant. Then I crawled back in bed, lay there limply for a half hour, then finally dragged myself out of bed. I stripped down, stumbled into the bathroom, turned on the shower, stood there for a minute, then climbed in. I applied shampoo, then soaped up and rinsed down, then rinsed my hair out. Dried off, wringed out the washcloth, climbed out of the shower. Put on underwear. Applied hair gel, dried my hair, applied deodorant, wandered into bedroom.” What’s the point? Where is this going? Who cares?

Stories are more than just conveying a series of facts, they are using the facts to make a point. Even when answering the question “What did you do today?”, we edit the results to match the questioner’s intent.

When we move from personal, one-on-one communications to things like movies, plays, books, etc, it steps up a notch. One could say the point of television is to entertain, but that misses the fact that there is more than one way to entertain.

But stories don’t even have to apply to what we tell other people. Sometimes, stories are the frameworks we use to make sense of things to ourselves. “Why did there have to be a traffic jam today of all days? The universe is out to get me.” Or “I guess it’s karma.”

When you mention dadaism, you are apparently talking about people who are purposely playing with story-telling conventions and expectations to convey the meaning that life is meaningless. Well, that’s an intentional corruption of what a story is in order to subvert the results of the story and give the opposite results. Duh, of course it doesn’t do what stories are supposed to do.

I have enjoyed the articulation of the big picture ideas being advanced here about meaning and narrative economy and so on.

I suspect the OP was interested in the silly end of the spectrum tropes, like all cars exploding when shot, red shirts always dying, superheroes always having a Secret Identity, stadium lights always making that phoomph noise when turned on, kids always knowing better than their parents, etc.

At the simple end of the spectrum, may I suggest that much is to do with narrative grammar. Movies have to accord with certain expectations in order for us to be able to understand them and maintain focus on what is supposed to be important. If a car does not explode when shot as movie grammar has taught us to believe it will, then the effect on the viewer is like a misplaced punctuation mark - we actively assume that the trope has been violated for narrative reasons, and we try to seek significance in its non-explosion, even when we wouldn’t in real life, and even if there was no significance within the movie. If the trope is violated without a narrative reason, then the effect is like Chekhov’s gun not being used.

We don’t pay that much attention to narrative grammar because we have been well trained in its ways, just like we don’t pay much attention to punctuation, but you notice it when you see an old movie (like a DW Griffith movie) that was made before the tropes were developed. It is kind of hard to follow the plot, not because it was badly made, but because the simplifying expectations we bring were not built into the movie.

Take editing as an example. A modern mystery thriller will have the typical victim being stalked shown from a huge variety of points of view that are quite impossible, with quick edits. There will be 1.5 seconds of long shot from behind, a shot from the side taken through foliage (to represent the viewpoint of a stalker) then a shot from directly in front of the victim to get the reaction shot of growing panic, then a shot of the stalker’s feet, all repeated and all done with a progressive shortening of the edits to create an increased sense of pace and panic.

Watch such a show, and you will take this all for granted. In real life, no one person could have all those points of view which the camera purports to give us. And if you showed the film to someone who had only seen movies from the DW Griffith era, they would be utterly confused (and probably slightly nauseated). The rules of narrative grammar have evolved over time, just like the rules of regular grammar.

There are also whole-of-plot tropes that are more embedded in the story than simple things like exploding cars or horses sounding like coconuts or there always being a parking space outside wherever you want to go in New York. At an elemental level, story telling is partly (largely?) about manipulating emotion - creating anxiety, then releasing it. The bigger the amplitude of this emotional wave, the better. The fundamental anxiety is whether we are going to be sad or happy at the end (and both sorts of endings give satisfactory emotional payoffs in their own way). We don’t know what’s going to happen, then we are given the emotional rush of resolution.

In order to maximise the amplitude of the dissonance between pre-resolution anxiety and post-resolution satiety, the story has to be streamlined. Distracting and confusing non-issues must be stripped away (subject of course to the Red Herring, which adds something to the amplitude in its own way). There can only be a limited number of possible outcomes in order for this maximisation to work - the boy has to get the girl, or not. The hero has to live, or not. If the sorts of real life compromises and complexities about outcomes were inserted into movies, the amplitude of the anxiety/resolution wave would be reduced. The effect is… puzzlement, lack of satisfaction, etc.

The trope in Saving Private Ryan was about the price and sacrifice involved in courageous decency - all the people who conspicously behaved decently died (with the exception of one left alive to do the scene at the beginning and end at the cemetery). So what if the Tom Hanks or Tom Sizemore characters had merely been injured in the end and gone to hospital to get metal cut out of their butts? Or the allies had arrived a bit earlier to rescue them? Reduced emotional payoff. Giant Meh! from the audience.

These tropes thus work to simplify the process of understanding the story. They are shorthand signals of where the story is headed, all with a view to maximising the emotional payload at the end. We buy into them as part of the agreement with the moviemaker to suspend disbelief.
Of course there are sophisticated, clever movies that maximise the payoff without resorting to cliched shortcuts, but these are rarer and harder to make, and when they work, the techniques they use are copied and in time become their own tropes. Somebody had to invent the Twist in the End a la Crying Game, the anti-ending a la Sopranos, etc. The first is clearly a trope, the second may become one in the fullness of time.

Ha. Ironically, that result conveys some of the intent, I otherwise failed to express. :o

I totally agree up to your last point. Quite often, we exactly do that … but we neither do it necessarily nor are our assumptions about the “questioner’s intent” correct without fail. What we unfailingly do, is adapt our answer to our current perception of the person, our relationship towards him, our specific mood and the resulting interpretation of the meaning of the question at hand.

Communication is not an exchange of signals; it’s an interdependent process of discovery and invention of purpose, meaning and understanding.

And that takes me to one distinction I made that you don’t seem to consider that important: whatever we intent to achieve with the story we communicate (whether it’s written or told or painted or put onto frames), we can’t control the effect it has on the recipient (even if it’s the storyteller himself).

Yes, stories usually emphasize a point, make a point – but that’s not more than a suggestion made by the author.

The recipient is not an empty vessel in which he pours meaning.

Quite to the contrary; he actively discovers and simultaneously invents the, or rather “a”,no, still not correct: the ever in his mind rebuilt stories on his own. If both participants, communicator and recipient, know the same rituals of communication, were taught the same or similar narrative grammar and share a (closely related) culture, it’s quite likely that the meaning, integrated by the creator, is well-understood and anticipated – and relished for both reasons.

(Kudos, Noel Prosequi, you describe this process perfectly.)

And usually, the recipient will also “get” some of the meaning that wasn’t intended to be transferred but can’t be hidden, like the creator’s craftsmanship as an artist, his affiliation with a certain time and culture, his knowledge, some of his prejudices etc.

The production of meaning and understanding just doesn’t end with the discovery of intention; every person extracts and adds his own meanings to the story; they change with mood, time, knowledge and social interaction. And they tend to be more important for that person than the intended one and can become anything, even the antipode of the original intent. Our understanding is not the author’s.

You mix dadaism and the Theatre of the Absurd (Ionesco belongs to the later) into one. Dadaism disintegrates conventions of structure, form and content. That doesn’t necessarily mean the artist didn’t want to express a specific meaning or didn’t seek understanding (or hope for some in the observer); it just means that he considered deconstruction a viable tool (for whatever purpose in a given case).

The Theatre of the Absurd, otoh, might integrate unconventional (for the viewer’s narrative grammar) and deconstructive elements into their story-telling – but it does tell stories. They are just often meant to express the meaninglessness of seeking or hoping for meaning.

Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me. Like most dadaists, they fail when they succeed. … which is their point, actually.

It’s only a corruption compared to a certain frame of reference – that you declare as the correct one. But is it really, even in your context, if it achieves what it wants to?

Anyway, I do agree that stories necessarily have meaning, they cannot not integrate (via their creator) and stimulate it (via the recipients).

But I think, the variety in purpose is richer than you pictured it, as are the processes that express and produce meaning and understanding.

Nope, not at all. I’m interested in very simple things – foreshadowing, climax, denouement, etc. The typical machinery of storytelling that does not reflect normal life.

The discussion so far is very interesting. Thanks, everyone.

For an interesting example of the notion of accepted narrative grammar, look at “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

A lot of people found the movie entertaining in parts but confusing, weird and slow in others. Much of that is simply the fact that the film was following Chinese moviemaking tropes, rather than Western ones. What seems like a good action flick broken up by long stretches of weird and dull to a Westerner was, to a Chinese, a wu xia flick, a movie about warriors in the olden days of China who’re highly honorable, often supernatural in their fighting abilities, and quite often participants in a sad story of love denied. It’s a type of movie every bit as familiar, popular and formulaic to the Chinese as a buddy cop movie would be to us.

Noel Prosequi, great comments (even if not what The Hamster King meant).

wintertime, I understand and agree with much of what you said. I am somewhat simplifying and trying to look at how storytelling originated, what function it plays and why we partake of it. In the broad strokes, nothing you said disagrees with my point. Narrative serves a certain purpose that is best served by certain frameworks, or “narrative grammar”, as Noel Prosequi put it. the elements of foreshadowing, climax, denouement, etc. are there in narrative precisely because they are means of conveying meaning. They are common ways of structuring thoughts and information to help the audience receive the message the author wishes.

And no, that is not a guarantee, but simply a likelihood.

Basically, it is shortcuts to understanding. Imagine what communication would be like if we had to define every word before each conversation. “Okay, the = an article meaning “a specific one”; road = path for travel, often paved for vehicles; less = er, the opposite of more?; traveled = taken, walked on, used.”

Language only works because we are able to shorthand meaning in common ways, and come to understand first via use and then later more formally. Narrative works in the same way - a broader structure of the same kind of shorthand process. We put words into sentences. We put sentences into paragraphs. We put ideas into thoughts into words that flow. We frame the information we wish to convey into frameworks that help the audience know what to expect so they can decipher the message, the meaning.

So now that we are fairly sophisticated in using and understanding some of these shortcuts, along comes a movement of people who decide they want to explore the shortcuts, and either try to modify or subvert the shortcuts for exploring how to communicate, or send a different message, or whatever. Fine, but that doesn’t change the original intent of the means of communication (narrative) or how those shortcuts function.

You’re lucky I can spell “dadaism”.